Military Wiki
Major General
Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi
2nd Head of State of Nigeria

In office
16 January 1966 – 19 July 1966
Preceded by Nnamdi Azikiwe
Succeeded by Yakubu Gowon
GOC Nigerian Army

In office
1965 – January 1966
Preceded by Major General Sir Christopher Welby-Everard
Succeeded by Yakubu Gowon
Personal details
Born (1924-03-03)March 3, 1924
Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria
Died July 29, 1966(1966-07-29) (aged 42)
Lalupon, Nigeria
Nationality Nigerian
Political party None (military)
Spouse(s) Victoria Aguyi-Ironsi
Military service
Allegiance Nigeria Federal Republic of Nigeria
Service/branch Nigerian Army
Years of service 1942 - 1966
Rank Major General
Unit Commander, 2nd Brigade
Commands Force Commander, ONUC
Battles/wars World War II

Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (3 March 1924, Umuahia - 29 July 1966, Lalupon, Oyo State) was a Nigerian soldier. He served as the Head of State of Nigeria from 16 January 1966 until he was overthrown and killed on 29 July 1966 by a group of northern army officers who revolted against the government.

Early life

Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born to Mazi Ezeugo Aguiyi's on 3 March 1924, in Umuahia-Ibeku, present-day Abia State, Nigeria. When he was eight years old, Ironsi moved in with his older sister Anyamma, who was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean diplomat in Umuahia. Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brother-in-law, who became his father figure. At the age of 18, Ironsi joined the Nigerian Army against the wishes of his sister.[1]

Military career

Aguiyi-Ironsi enlisted in the Nigerian Army on 2 February 1942 and was admitted to and excelled in military training at Eaton Hall, England and also attended Royal Army Ordnance Corps before he was later commissioned as an infantry officer[2] with the rank of Lieutenant on 12 June 1949. He soon returned to Nigeria to serve as the aide-de-camp to John Macpherson, Governor General of Nigeria, and he was assigned as equerry to Queen Elizabeth II[3] during her visit to Nigeria in 1956, for which assignment he was sent to Buckingham Palace to train.[4] During the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, appealed to the Nigerian government to send troops to Congo. Lieutenant Colonel Ironsi led the 5th battalion to the Kivu and Leopoldville provinces of Congo.[1] His unit proved integral to the peacekeeping effort, and he was soon appointed the Force Commander of the United Nations Operation in the Congo.[5]


In 1960 he led the Nigerian contingent in Congo. There he single-handedly negotiated the release of Austrian medical personnel and Nigerian troops when they were ambushed by Katangese rebels. For this he was awarded the 1st class Ritta Kreuz Award. He also single-handedly confronted an angry mob in Leopoldville, disbanding them.[6] This and many other exploits earned him the name "Johnny Ironside", a corruption of his name "Ironsi" with reference to various British military historical parallels.

Ironsi returned from Congo in 1964 during the post-independence "Nigerianization" of the country's institutions of government. It was decided that the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army, Major General Welby-Everard,[7] would step down to allow the government to appoint an indigenous GOC. Ironsi led the pack of candidates jostling for the coveted position. A consensus was reached by the ruling Northern People's Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) coalition government, and Ironsi became General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army on 9 February 1965.[8]


Fall of the First Republic

The political crisis in post-colonial Nigeria precipitated a breakdown of law and order in some of the country's provinces. The inability of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa to quell the situation incited the military to terminate civilian rule in a bloody coup d'etat on 14 January 1966. The revolutionary soldiers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Igbo from Okpanam near Asaba, present day Delta state, eradicated the uppermost echelon of politicians from the Northern and Western provinces. Though Ironsi, an Igbo, was originally slated for assassination, he was able to outmanoeuvre the rebellious soldiers in Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory.[9] With President Nnamdi Azikiwe undergoing medical treatment in London, the surviving members of Balewa's cabinet resigned and handed Aguiyi-Ironsi the reins of power. Aguiyi-Ironsi then forced Senate president Nwafor Orizu, who was serving as acting president in Azikiwe's absence, to officially surrender power to him, ending the First Nigerian Republic.

194 days in office

Ironsi inherited a Nigeria deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages. The fact that none of the high-profile victims of the 1966 coup were of Igbo extraction, and also that the main beneficiaries of the coup were Igbo, led the Northern part of the country to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. Though Ironsi moved swiftly to dispel this notion by courting the aggrieved ethnic groups through political appointments and patronage, his failure to punish the coup plotters and the promulgation of the now infamous "Decree No. 34"—which abrogated the country's federal structure in exchange for a unitary one— crystallized this conspiracy theory.[10]

During his short regime Aguiyi-Ironsi promulgated a raft of decrees. Among them were the Constitution Suspension and Amendment Decree No.1, which suspended most articles of the Constitution (though he left intact those sections of the constitution that dealt with fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and conscience were left intact). The Circulation of Newspaper Decree No.2 which removed the restrictions on press freedom put in place by the preceding civilian administration.[11] According to Ndayo Uko, the Decree no.2 was to serve "as a kind gesture to the press.." to safeguard himself when he went on later to promulgate the Defamatory and Offensive Decree No.44 of 1966 which made it an "offense to display or pass on pictorial representation, sing songs, or play instruments the words of which are likely to provoke any section of the country."[11] The controversial Unification Decree No. 34 aimed to unify Nigeria into a unitary state. Even though this decree was abolished when Aguiyi-Ironsi was deposed and killed, the decree was to affect the Nigerian foreign policy decision making system in a significant way: the abolition of "independence" of the regions in foreign policy. Until then the Nigerian regional governments could make their own foreign policies independent of the federal government.[12] This decree removed Nigeria's many contradictory tunes on foreign policy and various "mini-embassies" abroad were closed down.[12]

Supreme Military Council

Head of State Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi 1966
Chief of Staff, Nigerian Defence Forces Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe 1966
Chief of Staff, Army Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon 1966
Military Governor of Eastern Region Lt-Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu 1966
Military Governor of Western Region Lt-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi 1966
Military Governor of Mid-west Region Lt-Colonel David Ejoor 1966
Military Governor of Northern Region Lt-Colonel Hassan Katsina 1966

Counter coup and assassination

On July 29, 1966, Ironsi spent the night at the Government House Ibadan as part of a nation-wide tour. His host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. Ironsi desperately tried to contact his Army Chief of Staff, Yakubu Gowon, but he was unreachable. In the early hours of the morning, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers led by Theophilus Danjuma.[13] Danjuma arrested Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. Although some have argued that Fajuyi was not a target in this counter-coup, Theophilus Danjuma, William Walbe and others have gone on record to say that they probably wanted him "for questioning" as much as they did his boss, Aguiyi-Ironsi. Fajuyi was seen as a so-called progressive, who had supported the Nzeogwu coup in January of that year.[14] The bullet-riddled bodies of Ironsi and Fajuyi were later found in a nearby forest, and Yakubu Gowon became the new Military Head of State.[1]


  • Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi's son, was appointed to the position of Nigeria's Defence Minister on 30 August 2006 - forty years after his father's death.[1]
  • The swagger stick with a stuffed crocodile mascot carried by Aguiyi-Ironsi was called "Charlie". Legend had it that the crocodile mascot made him invulnerable and that it was used to dodge or deflect bullets when he was on mission in the Congo. Despite the stories, the crocodile mascot probably had something to do with the fact that the name "Aguiyi" translates as "crocodile" in Igbo.[4]

See also

  • Nigerian First Republic


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Iloegbunam, Chuks (1999). "Ironside". Press Alliance Network LTD, London.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "nm" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "nm" defined multiple times with different content
  3. Raji and Raji, Welcome to Nigeria: The Impossible Land
  4. 4.0 4.1 Siollun, Max. Oil, politics and violence: Nigeria's military coup culture (1966-1976).  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Siollun" defined multiple times with different content
  5. "Republic of the Congo – ONUC. Facts and figures". United Nations. 18 September 2001. Retrieved 12 May 2009. 
  6. Frederick Forsyth, Biafra Story, Leo Cooper, 2001. ISBN 0-85052-854-2
  7. Nigerian Army Chronicle of Command
  8. Omoigui, Nowa History of Civil-Military Relations in Nigeria
  9. Time Magazine "Nigeria: The Men of Sandhurst".
  10. Ironsi's broadcast to the nation, 24 May 1966.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Uko, Ndaeyo. Romancing the gun: the press as promoter of military rule. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Inamete, Ufot Bassey. Foreign policy decision-making in Nigeria. 
  13. Ironsi
  14. Sun Online, PETRUS OBI, Monday, 28 June 2004 How Ironsi was killed, by his ADC
Political offices
Preceded by
Nnamdi Azikiwe
Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria
January 16, 1966 – July 29, 1966
Succeeded by
Yakubu Gowon

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